Monday, October 24, 2011

The Achill Roar.

The view fron my tent towards Keel
A couple of days after we came back from the UK I headed up to one of my favourite places in Ireland, Achill Island. It is the largest island in Ireland and has an amazing range of terrain. It sports three seperate mountains and along with amazing coastal scenery it sports the highest sea cliffs in Europe. So off I went intending to make a weekend of it on Friday afternoon September 9th. Unfortunately the weather forecast was poor and we were expected to get the tail end of a hurricane over the weekend. Still I was looking forward to the experience. The drive was a bit of a chore and took all of 5 hours, so I was really glad to finally cross the bridge at Achill Sound at 6.30pm that evening. I was in two minds what to do about camping and after registration I drove up to Lough Acorrymore under Croachaun and found a grand spot to wild camp. This was my first time using the North Face VE25 tent I bought from a guy in London. As this is a super tough 4season tent I wasn't too worried about whatever the weather brought but it's waterproofness would surely be put to the test.

After I got the tent up (and it takes a bit of practice), I enjoyed a pleasent dinner and retired inside for the night. Shortly thereafter the promised bad weather arrived and the strengthening wind was accompanied by fierce showers. Thankfully the tent was well up to the task and only a few drips were in evidence which didn't threaten to get into the inner. So I relaxed and enjoyed a good read and I awoke refreshed and ready to go the next morning. There was a strong wind blowing but thankfully the showers were few. Unfortunately one of them chose to appear just when I had the flysheet removed and was dismantling the tent. Things got a bit wet then but hey ho. I had plenty of time and I slowly made my way down to the starting point. There were lots of other competitors about and to my eye they were nearly all younger than me and sported the physiques of finely tuned athletes. I on the other hand had been indulging in cream teas and much more over the previous week and sported the results you would expect from a self indulgent middle aged man. My confidence was low but I was determined to have a go. There was a choice of two courses, one long, (2K on a kayak, 15K hill run and 45K cycle) and another about 40% shorter. I of course was entered for the longer one. As I went in for the pre race briefing I learned that the Kayak stage had been cancelled due to the winds and the mountain run altered to remove one section that was along a cliff edge.

There was a festive athmosphere about and I was soon relaxing a little. When the first wave of a hundred competitors was sent away I watched as they ran along over two kilometers on the beach before reaching the high ground on Menawn mountain, Soon our time came about and after a big choreographed roar we were off. I set off at a nice steady pace and was thankful to find that the sand was firm and so was much easier to run over. Of course many took off like they were being chased by a pack of rabid dogs but most of these soon slowed and I found myself gradually overtaking a few. Then we hit the boggy mountainside and all running stopped and I just walked as quickly as I could. It was tough going but I fared at least as well as most and I was pleased with my progress as I rounded the summit checkpoint and turned downhill. I made a real effort to run fast downhill as the terrain was not rocky and was nearly all heather and bog. This I was very familiar with so I went for it. I was going great guns (for me) and I passed a fair few. The only problem was near the bottom I started to really cramp up in my bottom. This was a first for me and for a couple of hundred meters I wondered if I would have to stop. Mercifully things eased out and by the time I was on the beach again all was good. I was mighty relieved, as I wouldn't like to have to have given Butt cramps as the reason I had to stop. Eventually, after taking a tumble over the only stone to be found on the entire beach, I was leaving the sand and entering the transition area and setting off on the bike.

Soon I was out on the road and pedalling hard in the direction of Achill Sound. I thought I was going well until I was passed by several groups who quickly left me well behind. It was frustrating and I redoubled my efforts but soon sense prevailed when the route changed direction and we passed through open boggy expanses and found we were heading straight into the wind. I won't describe every torturous turn of the wheel but suffice to say it was tough. There was of course the wonderful section that was with the wind along the scenic Atlantic Drive but the sting in the tail when the last 5 kilometers was straight back into the wind made me ever so glad to reach the finish. Overall I finished in 77th place and I was well happy. As the weather was to disimprove further I made the decision the return home that afternoon. I am already looking forward to returning next year.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Pen Y Fan and the Cotswolds

Great hothouse

Margaret and I set off for a break to the Cotswolds on Saturday September £rd for a five day trip to see some of the best gardens in the UK. We traveled over on the Fastnet Line ferry from Cork to Swansea which gives one the best chance of getting the most of a limited timeframe as it crosses overnight. A comfortable sleep saw us arrive in Swansea at 8am on the Sunday morning and after an awful breakfast in a motorway services dump we headed to the botanic garden of Wales about twenty miles away. This proved to be an inspired choice and we were absolutely delighted and surprised by its scale, grandeur and quality. We had intended it only as a stopgap to fill in the morning and had planned to visit another garden in the afternoon but such was the variety and interest to be enjoyed that we spent nearly five happy hours exploring. It is a marvelous facility and something  which Wales should be very proud of.

Giant glasshouse.

It was now too late to visit the other garden so we decided to go for a drive up and through the Brecon Beacons. The road was quite busy and very twisty and we had the misfortune of getting caught behind a horsebox which slowed our progress for a full tweny miles or more. Still despite the delay I decided to round off the day by going for a run up Pen y Fan. We headed on down the A470 and parked at the Storey Arms car park. I changed and headed up the well made track. It is a fairly gentle route and I managed to run the most of the way up. There is a nice little downhill section before the steep final push to the summit of Corn Du 873mtrs. From here it is only about 600mtrs to the summit of Pen y Fan, at 886mtrs the highest summit in south Wales. It is a nice mountain with some nice steep ground on its northern side but overall the impression I got of the range is that it is very tame and managed ground. There is a uniformity to the ground cover that almost looks like a lawn or grass carpet covering everything. Anyway after the ferry crossing and the walk around the garden it was great to have the freedom of the hills for a while and I arrived back at the car invigourated and refreshed. From here we headed to Gloucester and our hotel, all in all a grand day.

The next few days were mostly taken up with the usual touristy things but the one thing I was really impressed by was the network of public paths that criss cross the countryside and link up the villages. What a wonderful facility these are and I took great delight in going for a couple of runs on them. It was great to enjoy the openness of the countryside and be able to avoid the roads. If the same was available here I would seldon run on the roads The Cotswolds is a beautiful area and one village after another is like a picture postcard. It is a triumph of planning and good taste. I was also very impressed by Stratford upon Avon. The town center has a great range of old beautifully preserved buildings and is mostly pedestrianised therefore is easy to get around. To finish the trip off we went to visit Prince Charles at his country estate in Highgrove. He didn't greet us in person but we did have a great tour around his garden. A visit to the nearby Westonbirt Arbouretum polished off the trip and a painless journey on the M4 back to Swansea and our ferry.